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Challenge: Parent Fails


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My cousin was recently in town for a visit. We made our first sightseeing stop at Powell’s on Sunday. Powell’s is an Oregon institution, a bookstore so large it has to be color coded, filling an entire city block with billions of words. We read our way through big red dogs, curious monkeys and killer carrots while my cousin browsed. Then it was getting close to time to go.

I knew that our exit was going to be tricky. My daughter had been a bit unsettled (to put it kindly, and which is deserving of its own post) by my cousin’s visit. When my daughter is feeling out of sorts, it leads to more difficult physical transitions.

I also knew that throwing sugar at the problem would make it easier for us to leave the bookstore, but in the long run would not be a good idea. But throw it I did, with the reckless abandon of one going in to rub a cat’s belly: there’s a ten percent chance you will get a purring cat; ninety percent that you’re going to get your hand mauled. But oh, that soft, tempting underbelly.

“All right guys, time to go – we’re going to get a donut!”

Nearly instantly, I knew I was going to be in the ninety percent. It was already noon, past the baby’s naptime. As we made the short walk to the donut shop, we could see people lined up out the door waiting to order. The kids waited impatiently, hopping from foot to foot, trying to catch glimpses of the donuts in the cases. When we got close enough to the cases to see inside, my daughter zeroed in on a purple frosted one which, unluckily for all, was laced with bourbon (this is Portland, guys).

“Oh that one has grown up drink in it, how about a chocolate one?” I asked. My daughter kept it together and agreed, but tears stung her eyes. There were so many choices. She had already made the wrong one once. What if chocolate was the wrong call too? My daughter’s shiny eyes reflected back the array of donuts in front of her, torn between disappointment and desire.

My cousin placed our orders, and we made our way to some high stools at the front of the store while we continued to wait. The smell of sugar was making us all heady. We kept busy by filling water glasses and negotiating seating arrangements.

At last the donuts arrived. Her immediate pleasure was so complete it was almost tangible. Within seconds, she was bearded in chocolate ganache, her fingers coated. She forewent the donut entirely, opting instead to eat the donut’s chocolaty glaze from the inside of the hole outward. But soon the pleasure became mitigated, the donut too delicious, the desire too intense. Although she was clearly enjoying it, she would steal glances at everyone else’s donuts, wondering about the candied path untaken. My cousin asked her how it tasted. She stared blankly ahead, trying—oddly successfully—to look blasé and condescending despite her chocolate mask.

At last the donuts were consumed. All that remained was to clean the chocolate off my daughter’s hands and face.

And this is where things began to go horribly wrong.

My daughter insisted on using a dry napkin to remove the now crusty chocolate off her hands. Painstakingly, she rubbed at the chocolate. It was making a dent, but obviously was not going to be enough to get her clean. Despite this becoming painfully clear, she persisted. The pleasure of the donut was now forgotten. All that was left was the slightly sick sugared feeling, the persistent, sweet greasy smell, and the unforgiving map of chocolate spread across her hands.

It was now nearing an hour after my baby’s naptime. He was not going to last much longer. Nor, frankly, was I. I was not prepared to sit through a reenactment of the Lady Macbeth sleepwalking scene any longer.

“I don’t care about your face, but we need to wash your hands with water. I don’t want you getting in the car with your hands all sticky.”

“No! I’m going to get it off! It’s working!”

It was not working.

“It’s not working. You’ve been working at it for five minutes. And even if you get it off, it will still be sticky.”

“No! It’s not sticky!”

It was sticky.

“It is sticky. You can do it yourself in the bathroom, you can do it yourself with a wet napkin or I can do it for you. I’m going to count to five and if you don’t decide, I’m going to do it for you.”

We get to five.

I wet the napkin, quickly rubbed the chocolate off her hands, and the entire shop received the unexpected treat of a chocolate-faced three-year-old in the throes of donut-induced distress.

We left quickly, doing the walk of shame back to the car. And I felt awful, not because of the tantrum – if anything, people were amused by the scene she was causing. It was so apparent what had transpired – the ring of chocolate surrounding my daughter’s face with the nakedness of a scarlet letter. This is a girl who had a sugar meltdown. I felt awful because I was the parent who let it happen.

She breathed deeply, audibly. “I’m calming down,” she told me through tears and shaky breaths. By the time we got back to the car, she was largely recovered.

This has been a recent turning point for her, this ability to calm herself down. Even when walking through the busy streets, sugar rushing through her body, disappointment and anger flooding her, she was doing it.

I realized then: it’s about choices. We both made bad choices. I chose to let them get donuts at a bad time, I chose to let my daughter get the messiest possible one, I chose to let her napkin scrubbing go on way longer than it should have. My daughter chose to stubbornly continue with a cleaning method that was not working – for her or for anyone around her.

But it is what we did after that mattered. She calmed herself down. Visibly, audibly, putting all her effort into it. She calmed herself down. I got her home, I wiped her face with a cloth, I lay down in bed with her and read her a book. I let her known her actions at the donut shop were not acceptable, but that I was proud of how she handled it afterwards.

I will say another lesson learned: the donut bribe is a powerful one. It should not be dangled recklessly merely for leaving a store. You can get an entire day’s good behavior out of a conspicuously placed pink box. Which is why today has been WAY better than Sunday. I didn’t even have to threaten to count to five.

This post originally appeared on Run, Knit, Love

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